Here Comes the Sun  

Posted by Big Gav

John Markoff has a piece in the New York Times on Cypress Semiconductor founder TJ Rodgers' venture into the solar power industry via SunPower.

T. J. Rodgers is surrounded by a sea of silicon wafers on the roof of his company's headquarters in a Silicon Valley industrial park.

No, not the ones that Mr. Rodgers, who founded Cypress Semiconductor in 1982, used to make high-speed computer memories or the newer specialized chips that go into iPods and high-end Mercedes-Benzes. These wafers are soaking up the sun's rays and turning them into electricity.

On the roof, he fusses over the occasional weed that has grown up in the cracks between the panels and speculates about using robots to keep the glass surfaces of the panels clean. But it is nothing like the problems of manufacturing computer chips in superclean rooms. "You don't have to do too much of anything," he said. "You just wash them down. All you want to do is get the stuff off."

Mr. Rodgers has plenty of motivation to keep an eye on his roof. The growth of his company may soon depend on SunPower, a small subsidiary that employs the six-inch-square silicon wafers to make a more efficient solar cell.

...

Part of Mr. Rodgers's charm, though, is his unpredictability. Recently, he responded to reports that the Bush administration was using the National Security Agency to turn loose data-mining software on the phone calls and Internet communications of American citizens with an op-ed article in The San Jose Mercury News that might qualify him for membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Our own government," he wrote, "is a bigger threat to our freedom than any possible menace posed by Al Qaeda."

Change the subject back to sources of power, and he again displays seemingly contradictory views. "I would gladly live next to the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant," he said. "It wouldn't bother me a bit." Nuclear power will inevitably be part of the nation's energy future, he reasons, but solar will play an increasingly significant role as well.

For Mr. Rodgers, that is the beauty of the six-inch squares of silicon that are colored black to absorb the sun's radiation. SunPower is on track to gain the ability to make about 35 million wafers a year by the end of 2006, enough to produce 100 million watts of solar power annually. That should give SunPower an important stake in a market that is expanding at a 31 percent compound annual rate.

Mr. Rodgers argues that his SunPower subsidiary has a crucial advantage over both larger and smaller competitors. While most of the industry has a conversion efficiency of around 14 percent, the SunPower photovoltaic cell will reach 21 percent, a 50 percent advantage that translates into both cost and performance leads for the company.

He will need that performance, because increasing demand will lead to more efficient solar cells from larger competitors like the Japanese manufacturing giant Sharp.

There are other hurdles to overcome as well. Producing 35 million silicon wafers requires more than 700 tons of silicon. Already, the simultaneous booms in the computer chip and solar-cell industries have combined to produce a global supply shortage of crystalline polysilicon, a material that is forged into tubular ingots and then sliced into thin wafers to make both fingernail-size silicon chips and palm-size wafers.

WorldChanging also has a brief post on the article called "Is Clean Energy the Next Tech Boom ?" (including a bunch of links if you click through).
We've been saying it just might be for some time now. The newspaper of record weighs in with an odd piece Forget Computers. Here Comes the Sun.:
"Today, solar cells are a tiny niche in the energy business — rapidly expanding to be sure, but without the potential for exponential gains in performance and falling costs that are hallmarks of the computer world. ... After years of promise, the market for solar power is finally taking off, with annual [US] demand expected to increase to as much as 2,500 megawatts by the end of 2008, from about 1,000 megawatts now."

Meanwhile, the British Wind Energy Association has announced that they expect to be producing twice as much electricity by 2010 as they'd previously estimated, the 20 largest utilities in Europe plan to invest twice as much in renewable energy generation over the next five years, and a new A$700 million solar chip plant has been announced for Germany's Thalheim "solar valley". Honestly, one could spend all day linking to this stuff.

TreeHugger has a post on an Israeli solar power plant that uses solar concentrators - at a cost similar to coal fired power plants.
Israel’s National Solar Energy Center will start testing a 400 square meter (4,300 sq ft) solar collecting dish. The huge dish is capable of achieving 1000 suns — it can concentrate the intensity of the sun's energy by a factor of a thousand. The dish is lined with 216 mirrors, but not more than a quarter will be uncovered to sunlight for the initial experiments. The mirrors concentrate the light onto a small square of concentrator photovoltaic cells, which convert the light into electricity. The concentrator photovoltaic panel is only 10 cm by 10 cm and is too small to absorb the energy from the whole dish.

According to a study the center's director, professor David Faiman, published last year, mass producing dish systems like the Sede Boker model would cost less than $1,000 per kilowatt to produce -- the cost of a typical, fossil-fuel burning plant.

TreeHugger also has a little roundup of solar related posts this week called "solar high rollers".
If you see summer finally out on the horizon (and believe us, we do) you may be thinking that this is a great time to schedule in some solar around the house projects. This last week on TreeHugger, our writers dug up some great new products to help you turn all that sunshine into things you need done.

:: Mairi pointed out these great solar powered garden lights, sure to bring a little sunlight to your darkest garden nights.

:: Justin found a solar powered alternative camera for all those of you into home surveillance.

:: Lloyd offered this sun-tracking solar platform to easily add a little grid-free boost to your home electrical system.

:: Lloyd also dug up this instant off-grid cottage for those of you considering a summer home -- or looking to move into a first home with minimum impact and maximum Oomph.

Joel Makower has an interesting post on "The Green Chemistry Mandate" (if you are interested in chmistry anyway). The move towards greener chemicals that it talks about is part of the trend towards cradle-to-cradle production systems (in Europe at least).
The search for greener chemicals has, in just a few short years, moved from a mission to a mandate.

Spawned by a confluence of regulations, litigation, competitive pressures, and corporate missions, the world of "green chemistry" seems to be going mainstream. And -- as with alternative energy and other clean technologies -- the United States is falling behind its European and Asian brethren, which are more aggressively pushing green-chemistry agendas.

"Green chemistry," as I've written previously, refers to the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. As with most things "green," there's no universal standard -- Is a chemical "green" if one reduces its toxicity a little bit or a lot? We don't know -- but with a bevy of scientific organizations getting involved, the peer-review process is likely to keep abuses in check.

...

One could make a case that America is addicted not just to oil, but to toxins. According to the U.C. report:
Every day, the U.S. produces or imports 42 billion pounds of chemicals, 90% of which are created using oil, a non-renewable feedstock. Converted to gallons of water, this volume is the equivalent of 623,000 gasoline tanker trucks (each carrying 8,000 gallons), which would reach from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and back if placed end-to-end. In the course of a year, this line would circle the earth 86 times at the equator.

Moreover, it says, "Global chemical production is expected to double every 25 years for the foreseeable future."

The report notes that the U.S. already has fallen behind globally in the move toward green chemistry. The European Union, for instance, has passed landmark legislation that mandates environmentally safer materials. ... All of these are pushing European companies to innovate, designing new products and manufacturing processes that use fewer problematic chemicals. Most U.S.-based multinationals are manufacturing to the EU standard. But there are thousands of U.S. companies that don't meet these tough restrictions.

Indeed, as the U.C. report points out, a relatively weak U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has provided little incentive for U.S. manufacturers to invest in green chemistry technologies. (This, despite the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actively promotes green chemistry -- yet another example of the government's faith-based environmentalism.)

In other chemistry news, GCC has a post on a new "tandem catalytic process" that enables more efficient Fischer-Tropsch (coal to liquids) production processes, and one on an Australian biotech company that has developed sugarcane plants optimized for ethanol production (neither of which are examples of green chemistry, though perhaps biotech cane might be borderline).

Dave Roberts at Grist has some musings on "Ethanol Dreams and Ethanol Realities", which points out the generally lucklustre appeal of ethanol in particular and biofuels in general once you start to dig in to the issues.

Switching from chemistry to physics, the ABC has a balanced report on nuclear power from thorium, which is promoted as being cleaner and safer than uranium, but still not as desirable as renewables.
Supporters of an alternative energy source say it has the potential to revolutionise the nuclear power industry and is a safer alternative to uranium. Thorium oxide, which is three times more abundant than uranium, is also a radioactive material.

But senior research scientist Dr Hashemi-Nezhad, from Sydney University, says it is safe to hold in your hand. "This is the future of the energy in the world - energy without green, without greenhouse gas production," he said. Dr Hashemi-Nezhad says thorium has all of the benefits of uranium as a nuclear fuel but none of the drawbacks.

It can generate power without emitting greenhouse gases and it can be used to incinerate the world's stockpiles of plutonium. Dr Hashemi-Nezhad says thorium waste would only remain radioactive for 500 years, not the tens of thousands that uranium by-products remain active.

..

But Australian Conservation Foundation president Ian Lowe says although thorium has advantages he says using thorium is like being run over by a diesel train rather than a steam train.

"It's true that the period of danger of radioactive waste from thorium reactors, if the design can be worked up and proven, would be hundreds of years rather than hundreds of thousands of years," he said. "But we're still talking about very long lifetimes."

Mr Lowe says nuclear power is still a long way from becoming clean and green, even with thorium. "If we spent as much as we spend every year on nuclear research on renewable energy, we wouldn't be talking about this issue," he said. "We'd have had enough solar and wind and other forms of renewable energy to give us clean energy solutions for the entire future."

Technology has other uses than energy production of course - and there have been a few snippets about the ongoing creation of the surveillence state floating around this week - Boing Boing and Bruce Schneier both point to a story about the integration of the internet and the NSA's traffic monitoring (or traffic storage systems - who knows) systems courtesy of your helpful telephone company.

Moving away from technology entirely, Past Peak has a post on the Iran situation, quoting Colonel Sam Gardiner, who believes military operations in Iran have been underway for a while (something tinfoil commentators like Wayne Madsen have been saying for a while).
As Digby points out, what it boils down to is this: Bush, Rumsfeld, et al are running a secret war in Iran. The operation's already underway, and has been for some time. They're doing it all on their own, without even a semblance of Congressional approval. It's treason. The generals are desperately throwing themselves in front of the runaway train. Meanwhile, not a peep from Congress.

Crikey had quite a good article by Stephen Mayne last week about why the Murdoch press hates everything green so much.
The Crikey editorial yesterday honed in on the feral anti-environmentalism displayed this week by Murdoch attack dogs Andrew Bolt and Terry McCrann, even after six credible CEOs tolled the bell and declared we must get serious about climate change.

Having spent three years occupying the Herald Sun office next to McCrann and two down from Bolt, I can provide some insights into their modus operandi. McCrann has a great brain but he loves to duck out for a coffee and a smoke and it is on these occasions that you get to talk through the issues, sometimes even influencing his columns.

Jeff Kennett once alleged that I'd poisoned McCrann and turned him into a critic of his government and there's an element of truth in this. McCrann never baulked in backing his business editor during the mid-to-late 1990s as the two of us got further and further into dispute with Kennett over his various ethical blind spots.

Fast forward a few years and it is Bolt who is chewing McCrann's ear and influencing his columns. The similar attacks on those preaching climate change doom and gloom is a strong example, as were the co-ordinated attacks on Peter Costello last month.

McCrann generally has more credibility than the hysterical and offensive Bolt but his one big weakness is a complete sycophancy towards the Rupert Murdoch agenda, no matter what the facts may be. Today's column on News Corp's poison pill may as well have been written by a delusional Murdoch himself as McCrann declared: "It's entirely likely that the pill will be endorsed near-unanimously. Despite their litigation, it's clearly in the interests of the instos (and all shareholders)."

Rupert is no supporter of the environmental movement which probably reflects the fact that he personally has been responsible for more tree destruction and waste paper than anyone in the history of humanity.

At university you learn about this thing called externalities – the damage that a company's products can cause the wider community. One solution is to tax companies to help pay for the damage and discourage them from producing too much of their product, which is precisely where a carbon tax comes in. Coal is poison and it should be taxed more heavily than other forms of energy because of the long-term damage of climate change.

The fossil fuels industry bleats about stranded assets if Australia introduces a carbon tax. However, if a carbon tax was finally accepted in Australia, wouldn't the debate quickly move on to other forms of new taxes to penalise those who damage the environment? Rather than stranded coal-fired power stations, you might then find yourself talking about stranded printing plants if governments started taxing newspaper companies for the cost of their waste.

So next time you read an anti-Green spray in the Murdoch press, just remind yourself that the company controls 70% of Australia's newspapers but trashes the environment, destroy millions of trees and creates an awful lot of mess along the way.

Dead tree journalism is sadly not an efficient allocation of community resources, so of course these dinosaurs will talk their own book and attempt to discredit anything which vaguely moves towards sending more accurate price signals to those who cause environmental damage.

Billmon meanwhile is still continuing his high volume and high quality output with a look at "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder" - as usual, go read the whole thing - his posts on "Munich" and "Payback" are interesting too).
Iraq is in flames, Iran is a nuclear crisis (whether or not it need be) the immigration debate is raging, oil is at $70 a barrel, global climate change is accelerating, the post-Katrina recovery effort is floundering, there is no budget for the coming fiscal year.

And the Republicans are preparing their agenda for the fall elections:
GOP Campaign to Focus on Flag Burning, Gay Marriage, Abortion

Thank God they're on top of things, because if we can't get this nationwide epidemic of flag burning under contol, we could be in some real trouble.

Meanwhile, over in Right Blogostan the hysteria du jour revolves around the refusal of the producers of South Park to permit an cartoon image of Mohammad to appear on the show.

(What is it with fanatics and cartoons lately? If one group isn't going bat shit over the ones they consider sacriligious, the other group is going bat shit over the absence of the ones the first group considers sacriligious.)
Porky Pig: Can't we all just get along?

This isn't just crazy, it's clinically complusive – as in wash your hands 50 times a day and ALWAYS arrange your lima beans in a straight line before you eat them compulsive. And whereas the enraged cartoon protestors of the Islamic world are moved by an ancient belief system that predates modern rationality, our fanatics are supposed to be members of an enlightened Western culture that is far above such primitive superstitions – or at least, so they keep telling us.

Instead, the conservative movement – particularly its "social conservative" wing – is starting to resemble the thumbnail definition of monomania: i.e. the process of thinking more and more about less and less.

...

The most accurate way to describe it, I suppose, would be to say that the social conservative movement is developing the traditional characteristics of a cult, in which the semiotic symbols and intellectual concepts used in the outside world begin to take on very different and emotionally charged meanings to the initiated.

...

In any case, the practical effect is to create a movement that can only engage with reality on a very narrow front – on a set of issues that is compatible with the increasingly warped and extreme meanings the cult has developed for itself. The propaganda ministers of the Republican Party, meanwhile, have made it their business to learn this code and to manipulate it in ways that will whip the faithful into a frenzy – while at the same time appealing to a broader, less indoctrinated audience that is also concerned (not fanatical, but concerned) about such issues.

It's really quite clever, not to mention extremely effective. Kevin Phillips has tactfully referred to it as the creation of a "rogue coalition." I, on other hand, would call it something else. But that's another story.

And to close, a natural lighting alternative (which isn't scalable - or even practical - in any way) - firefly squid. Imagine having a bucket of these in the corner of every room...

3 comments

TJ Rodgers has always cast himself in a very libertarian light. Sometimes I can't see the distinction between that and an ordinary greedy capitalist trying to impress other greedy capitalists.

I don't know enough about him to declare him a saint or a villain who is just doing some greenwashing.

But overall I approve of him based on what the article said.

Personally I don't have a problem with greedy capitalists per se - in fact I'd quite like to be a greedy, rich capitalist myself :-)

Where I get cranky is when people get rich and/or powerful by doing things harmful to other people and/or the environment.

Investing in clean technology is, on the whole, a postive thing to do, so I'm all for it - and I hope he makes plenty of money while he is at it (I also hope his vinyard isn't polluting anyone's water downstream).

Better to be a silicon valley tech capitalist than a texas oil baron with lots of investments in the military-industrial complex and a vested interest in resource wars and a massive police state...

Anonymous   says 7:52 PM

The ABC Lateline story on thorium cycle reactors was a good quick summary of the technology. There's a lot more information about some of the technology (plus the pros and cons) in Cosmos magazine [http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/], which did a large feature on it.

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