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Solar power also is sparking new hope as a reliable green energy source. This year, it is expected to be a $9 billion industry, according to Dan Shugar ’86.
Shugar has turned the sun’s rays into a commercially viable energy source, with his company, PowerLight, a designer, manufacturer, and installer of large-scale solar electric systems, based in Berkeley, Calif.
Shugar is a Californian whose day-to-day life is all about soaking up the rays. He drives an electric car, powered exclusively by the sun. When he gets to work, he’ll plug it into his company’s commercial building, which also is solar-powered.
“By midmorning, my car will be fully charged,” Shugar says on a recent morning as he made the 25-mile trip from home to work. “I have 46,000 miles on this car and I haven’t put a drop of gas in this thing. That’s cool, don’t you think?”
For the last five years, PowerLight has been ranked as one of the fastest-growing private corporations in the country by Inc. magazine. As a result, PowerLight recently was listed in the Inc. 500 Hall of Fame, a distinction shared with companies such as Microsoft and Oracle.
In 2004, Shugar’s company completed the world’s largest solar power system in Germany. Ground-mounted solar panels cover an area the size of 45 football fields, providing power to three nearby towns. PowerLight also specializes in installing solar panels on flat commercial rooftops. The company has expanded into the residential market, providing integrated solar solutions for homebuilders.
The cost to buy and install solar panels is a tenth of the price it was 25 years ago. And, with new thin films and other technologies, the panels provide twice as much energy as they did a decade ago, from 10 percent to 20 percent efficiency.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but let me give you some context. The gasoline in your car operates at only about 15 percent efficiency,” Shugar says.
At this point, solar generation doesn’t eliminate the need for the power utility and probably won’t be the top energy source to replace oil anytime soon, Shugar says.
But, it is sure to bring much-needed relief to the overworked electric grid to prevent rolling blackouts like those experienced in southern California during the warmest times of year when farmers are drawing extra power to irrigate their fields and utility customers are cranking air conditioners, constraining already-overloaded lines.
With its compatibility with the electric grid and its modularity you can put a few panels on a rooftop or add thousands to service whole communities solar power generation is an ideal source of distributed energy, which is essentially supplementing electricity to a main power district.
Solar panels can be placed alongside power line transformers, where the sun-generated energy can be fed into the grid. The electricity from the same panels on your roof can also supply power to the local grid.
Shugar has been a leader in promoting the concept of net metering, which allows customers to sell excess energy back to the utility company at retail value.
Shugar’s integral role in pushing net metering requirements in some states, including California, has spurred a boom in consumer investment in solar and other renewable energy sources.
A Waste-Full Approach
Many more biomass technologies are on the verge of being developed that turn everything from rice to aquatic plants into energy. One endless source of power that researchers have had their eye on is literally dumped down the toilet everyday.
Bruce Logan ’79, the Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State University, is leading a research team that has developed a microbial fuel cell that uses bacteria to break down organic matter in sewage to generate electricity. The process cleans up wastewater at the same time.
Logan is working to make the device commercially available within the next three to five years. The immediate application is to use the fuel cells in conjunction with wastewater treatment plants to offset the costs of running the facilities. But, wastewater alone will not solve the energy crisis, Logan says.
“It is hoped that, as these technologies evolve, they will become useful techniques for producing energy from a variety of organic matter sources,” he says.
In general, fossil fuels coal, oil, natural gas provide more than 85 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States. But oil is really the lifeblood of America’s economy, supplying more than 40 percent of the U.S. total energy demands and nearly 100 percent of fuel for transportation.
Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, also has its promoters as the next great energy revolution. But the gas must be extracted using other energy sources. Currently, hydrogen is commercially produced primarily from fossil fuels, a situation that will have to change, says Logan, for it to be a truly green and sustainable energy source.
Logan has found a way to use bacteria to extract hydrogen from wastes. The hydrogen can then be used in conventional fuel cells to make electricity.
By modifying the microbial fuel cells so that they do not use oxygen, his team has developed the first process that enables bacteria to coax four times as much hydrogen directly out of biomass than can be generated by fermentation alone. To allow the bacteria to extract the extra hydrogen, Logan assists the microorganisms with a power boost, which is a fraction of the voltage needed to electrolyze water in producing hydropower.
Logan has won a number of awards for his research. Recently, he was named a winner of the Popular Mechanics 2005 Breakthrough Award.
Nuclear a Viable Option
“Around the world nuclear power has been steadily growing,” says Chauncey Starr ’32, the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame member who introduced the world to nuclear power for peaceful purposes. After working on the Manhattan Project, Starr founded the first nuclear power companies in the U.S., France, and Germany. In 1990, he received the National Medal of Technology from President George Bush for his contributions to nuclear power, including his seminal work in risk analysis.
Nuclear fission is the second largest source of electricity in the U.S., supplying about 20 percent of the nation’s electric use each year. In other countries, that number is much higher. For example, nuclear provides more than 75 percent of the electricity in France. In addition, China, Japan, and other countries are building new reactors.
In particular, there is renewed interest in “recycling” the spent fuel in which the recovered plutonium and uranium can be used to generate more energy. When fuel assemblies are removed from the reactor for the first time, this “spent fuel” contains over 95 percent of its original energy potential.
“When we talk about nuclear power being good for thousands of years, it’s because it takes very little of the original uranium to produce a huge amount of energy, if it’s recycled,” Starr says.
Over the years, accidents, waste storage, and concerns of weapon proliferation have kept nuclear power from playing a greater role. But, Starr notes, great strides have been made in developing more efficient reactor designs as well as improved regulations for both plant safety and to prevent weapons proliferation.
As far as where to dispose of the radioactive waste, Starr says storing it deep underground is a safe solution, adding that the amount of waste is a small fraction of what is produced by fossil fuels and that the radioactive activity eventually becomes negligible.
“If condensed into a pill, the ashes that would be left of the nuclear power it takes to service a single individual in his or her lifetime in our society would represent two aspirins. So, you’re dealing with an extremely small amount of waste,” he says.
Nuclear energy is one of the most viable options for clean energy, says Starr, who wrote a landmark paper in 1969 on how to weigh the risks and social benefits of various technologies.
“We look for the benefits of living on a day-to-day basis. We look for comfort, good health, physical security. We look for a stable society, and we want all that science and technology can give us,” he says. “To do all that, society takes a risk. If you’re not a society that’s willing to stick its neck out and try new things, you’re not going to progress. Nuclear power represents a living example of that.”
Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson also believes nuclear power is having a resurgence. “This is being achieved through safer and more economical performance of nuclear power plants, and by technological innovations in new designs which address safety and profitability concerns, and which are targeted to deal with issues of nuclear waste,” says Jackson, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Some American companies are planning for this nuclear future. “Several U.S. utility companies already are identifying potential new plant sites and testing new federal licensing processes for advanced-design nuclear power plants. The industry anticipates building 12 to 15 new nuclear plants by 2015,” she adds.
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