Monday, September 29, 2014

Solar energy: a sunflower solution to electricity shortage

Computer giant IBM last week revealed the prototype of its advanced solar electricity generators: a 30ft-high concrete “sunflower” fitted with wafer-thin aluminium mirrors and a maze of tiny tubes for carrying coolant through the heart of each device.

The machines, which will be built in conjunction with the Swiss company Airlight Energy, can convert 80% of the sun’s radiation into electricity and hot water, it is claimed, with each generating 12 kilowatts of electricity and 20kW of heat on a sunny day, enough to supply several homes.

At the device’s official unveiling in Zurich, executives for both companies said they hoped that by 2017, when their sunflower generators should be ready for the market, they could be manufactured for half to one-third of the cost of comparable solar converters today. According to IBM, the machine’s secret lies with the microscopic tubes that carry water through the cluster of photovoltaic chips at the heart of each device. This system has already been adopted by IBM to cool its high-performance supercomputers. “We were inspired by the branched blood supply of the human body,” said Bruno Michel, from the IBM Research laboratories in Zurich.

The sunflower operates by tracking the sun so that it always points in the best direction for collecting its rays; these are then focused on to a cluster of photovoltaic cells that are mounted on a raised platform. The cells convert solar radiation into electricity. However, without the microchannel cooling system, which carries distilled water through the chips, temperatures would reach more than 1,000C. With the microcooling system, which carries water to within a few millimetres of the back of each chip, temperatures are kept down to 90C – a far safer, and far more efficient, operating level. Electricity is generated while the system also produces large amounts of hot water from the cooling system. “That hot water is a game changer,” added Michel. “Electricity is obviously vitally useful but so is the heat – for we can use it for desalinating water.”

At present, about 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity. However, that figure is dwarfed by the number – 2.5 billion – who have no access to proper sanitation. And according to figures supplied by Airlight Energy, that latter number is currently increasing at a rate of 9% a year. However, the IBM-Airlight sunflower is designed to tackle both problems. The electricity will have numerous uses while the hot water can be pumped through desalinators that use porous membranes to boil salt water and distil the result into pure, drinkable water. A large installation made up of several generators could provide enough fresh water for an entire town, it was claimed at last week’s launch.

Apart from sites in Africa, the Middle East and Australia, it is hoped the sunflower system will be used for remote hospitals, hotels and holiday resorts. IBM says it will instal its first two devices for free in 2016 and has asked towns around the world to put their names forward to be the first to have a solar sunflower erected on their land. More

 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On Low-Carbon Economies

RMI and Carbon War Room are working together to help Caribbean islands transition to lowcarbon, clean-energy economies

Former Costa Rican president and Carbon War Room head José María Figueres on islands, carbon, and global energy use

In 1994 at age 39, José María Figueres was elected president of Costa Rica, becoming the youngest president of a Central American country during modern times. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, his administration focused on sustainable development. Since then, he has served as the chair of a United Nations taskforce, CEO of the World Economic Forum and then Concordia 21, and most recently president of Sir Richard Branson’s nonprofit Carbon War Room. Fresh off travel through parts of Asia with RMI chief scientist Amory Lovins, we asked Figueres about the importance of working with islands, creating low-carbon economies, and how to accelerate transforming global energy use.

José María Figueres

Rocky Mountain Institute: Like RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst, your background spans business and government. Looking at today’s energy and climate challenges, why are market-based solutions — even if bolstered by supportive governmental policies — so important for driving change?

José María Figueres: About 40 percent of global carbon emissions can be profitably avoided today within existing international agreements and national regulations by applying already-proven technologies. RMI and CWR are leaders in helping businesses realize this terrific market opportunity. As we get more capital to flow into financing the transition toward clean energy and lower carbon emissions, we can provide profitable example for others to follow and broaden understanding about these issues at the same time.

RMI: Looking at RMI and Carbon War Room’s collaborative work together in the Caribbean, including the Creating Climate Wealth summit earlier this year, why is focusing on islands so important, given their small contribution to climate change yet great vulnerability in the face of it?

JMF: Working with islands to shift their energy base from fossil fuels to renewables is important for at least three reasons. First, it helps improve the quality of life for island residents, who are burdened with some of the highest electricity prices in the world. Second, such a transition creates jobs, investment possibilities, and entrepreneurial opportunities that render these islands — normally dependent on tourism for the overwhelming bulk of their economies — more competitive. And third, our work with islands can yield shining examples of a successful transition to lower-carbon, clean-energy economies using existing technologies. This will hopefully inspire others to follow in their footsteps, and not only on literal islands. After all, islands need not be surrounded by water. They can be an off-grid mine, a rural community, an isolated military installation, and much more.

RMI: Costa Rica, already known as an ecotourism hot spot and global leader in environmental stewardship, has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2021. Your energy mix is already almost entirely renewable (mostly hydro plus some geothermal and wind), with an impressively small amount of fossil fuels. As the country embraces diversification with other renewables, such as solar in the Guanacaste region, what lessons can the rest of the world learn from your successes and challenges?

JMF: The first lesson is that renewables are profitable. Powered by renewables Costa Rica has successfully diversified its economy, with a very pronounced and competitive export-oriented bias. Secondly, we are living proof it can be done even among developing nations with scarcer economic resources than the developed world. Thirdly, our experience shows that systemic thinking in addressing these challenges is much better than a “silo” focus.

RMI: What do you see as the most significant barriers that stand in the way of transforming global energy use? With renewables making an increasingly compelling economic case — garnering billions of dollars of global investment, while their costs keep declining, making that investment go further — how can we accelerate their adoption and topple incumbent fossil fuels?

JMF: There is nothing harder than changing cultural attitudes. Most of the world grew up on fossil fuels without thinking of their unintended consequences: increasing carbon emissions driving climate change. Now we must change our habits and practices, and do so within a ten- to fifteen-year window to avoid temperature changes from escalating beyond two degrees Celsius. This requires broadening our understanding with respect to the business opportunities it entails, strong leadership to change present business models, and public-private partnerships to make progress in the short time we have to act.

RMI: With China and the U.S. dominating global oil imports, fossil fuel consumption (especially coal), and carbon emissions, how do smaller countries such as Costa Rica and the Caribbean’s island-nations perceive their place in that landscape?

JMF: Smaller nations face both a great challenge and a great opportunity. The challenge — and it’s not an easy one to come to terms with — is that even if we do everything we can in the smaller nations and reduce our carbon footprint to zero, the world still needs China, the U.S., Brazil, India, and other large players to do more and move faster. The opportunity, though, is for smaller nations to set an example in the transition to low-carbon economies, which hopefully inspires others to follow. Then, the issue becomes one of scaling solutions, rather than proving them in the first place. Smaller nations can become early-adopters proving the case that paves the way for other major world energy powers to follow.

Follow José María on Twitter.

This article is from the Summer 2014 issue of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solution Journal. To read more from back issues of Solutions Journal, please visit the RMI website.

 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaking to the UN Climate Summit

 

Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaking at the UN Climate Leaders Summit in 2014

Published on Sep 23, 201 4 • Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaks on behalf of civil society during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Leaders Summit in New York City. Check out this high-quality version of Kathy's poem with footage of climate action around the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJuRjy9k7GA

Kathy performed a new poem entitled "Dear Matafele Peinem", written to her daughter. The poem received a standing ovation. Kathy is also a teacher, Journalist and founder of the environmental NGO, Jo-Jikum.

The state of the climate — and what we might do about it

Today, the UN begins its Climate Summit, enlisting the world to work together on a problem that’s too big for any one country to solve. Lord Nicholas Stern helped write the delegates’ report that outlines where we are now — and what we could do next. It’s a big vision for cooperation, with a payoff that goes far beyond averting disaster. He asks: How can we use this crisis to spur better lives for all?