Saturday, August 17, 2013

Forget fracking - solar is the hot ticket in energy for U.S. military

A technician walks past solar modules at the Solarpark Muehlhausen photovoltaic power plant in Germany, one of many alternative energy companies doing research.
U.S. Marines go to war in Afghanistan with solar cells embedded in their rucksacks, efficient enough to recharge lithium-ion batteries for radios and greatly lighten loads. Field patrols will soon have almost weightless solar blankets as well. These will be able to capture a once unthinkable 35 per cent of the sun's light as energy thanks to thin membranes technology, a spinoff from satellites.
This new kit is a military imperative. Taliban ambushes of supply convoys are a major killer. The Pentagon says the cost of refuelling forward bases is $100 U.S. a litre.
The U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station has relied on a 14-megawatt array of solar panels in California's Mojave Desert for a third of its power since last year. Pearl Harbor will soon follow as the Pentagon goes off-grid, better shielded from enemies.
The U.S. Navy will derive half its energy from renewables by the end of this decade, according to the U.S. solar industry (SEIA) in a report, Enlisting the Sun: Powering the U.S. Military with Solar Energy. It may be a stretch to say that the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is the vanguard of the green revolution, but not a big stretch. "The U.S. Defence Department is racing ahead. This could be like the semiconductor industry in the 1980s where the military changed the game," said Tony Leggett, chairman of Solarcentury, a solar energy company.
Nor is the Pentagon alone. Grant lists from the "SunShot Initiative" of the U.S. Energy Department show that America's top research institutes are grappling with each of the key issues which have bedevilled solar energy for so long.
Los Alamos - home of the Manhattan Project - is working on smart grids and better ways to capture excess electricity produced in peak sunlight hours. The Argonne labs are working on thermal energy storage, to overcome "intermittency," the curse of solar and wind.
Oak Ridge is testing coatings that increase durability of solar panels eightfold. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working on a carbon-dioxide power cycle that could achieve 90 per cent thermal efficiency and does not require water, transforming the prospects of desert solar. The quest for renewables has quietly become a national endeavour for the world's paramount superpower, still home to 18 of the top 20 research universities.
The Japanese are no slouches, either. They are spending $200 million U.S. on a thermal storage project in Hokkaido, using vanadium in electrolyte tanks. Such ferment will surely have consequences, though what and when is hard to predict.
The U.S. Energy Department expects the cost of solar power to fall by 75 per cent between 2010 and 2020. By then, average costs will have dropped to a dollar per watt for big solar farms, $1.25 for offices, and $1.50 for homes, achieving the Holy Grail of grid parity with new coal and gas plants without further need for subsidies.
The current U.S. average ranges from $5.30 for homes to $2.50 for some utilities. Germany is further ahead, below $2.50 even for homes. Costs have fallen by a quarter over the past year alone because of the flood of cheap Chinese panels.